Judge Gordon Sullivan keeps bears in his den.
A movie too big to ignore.
Although civilization is usually dated to the time when we as a species learned to write, the case could be made that domesticating animals was as significant a contributor to our collective history. Harnessing big animals allowed for more effective agriculture, which meant more leisure time, which meant more collective knowledge, which meant better agriculture, etc. On a smaller scale we've been domesticating smaller animals like cats and dogs for hunting and the like as well. However, humans love to overreach, and just about every animal we've found has been kept as a pet by at least one person. Despite the apparent danger of keeping animals like venomous snakes or big cats for pets, the overconfident and the unwary continue to bring these animals into urban and suburban environments. The Elephant in the Living Room attempts to document this phenomenon using a pair of men (on opposites sides of the law) to show the contemporary consequences of keeping so-called "exotic" pets.
The Elephant in the Room is really about two men. One is Tim Harrison. He's a Public Safety Officer, which is a catch-all designation for someone who acts as a kind of roving policeman, firefighter, and EMT. Part of his beat is dealing with pets who escape and need to be corralled—large or venomous snakes, gators, etc. The other man is Terry Brumfield. He's a man who's trying to raise a pair of lions in his home. Yes, lions. The lives of Tim and Terry collide when one of Terry's lions escapes.
It's hard to avoid exotic animals if you go anywhere near a TV or the news. Whether it's a nuisance alligator or someone who lets their twelve-foot python escape, the papers are often full of such bizarre stories. Then there are all the reality shows dedicated to "animals gone wild" and the like. In all these news and reality stories we rarely see the owners and sellers of these animals. It's this missing piece of the exotic pet puzzle that The Elephant in the Living Room hopes to correct.
If there's one thing that Elephant gets right, it's putting a face to those who deal with exotic pets. Both Harrison and Brumfield come off as real human beings. It would have been really easy to make Harrison into a rule-bound jerk just trying to ruin pet-owners' good times, and it would have been even easier to make Brumfield look like a wacko with a lion fetish. Instead, they're both more like regular guys. Or if not regular, at least as normal as a pair of guys who are committed this much to animals can be. The pair also has a built-in drama that structures the film. Harrison is obviously on the side of public safety, and Brumfield is not. We know from the first frame that they're going to clash, and clash big. This drama lends some momentum to a film that would otherwise be a bit scattered.
The film, though, is not without its problems. Part of the difficulty is that this territory has been mined quite a bit by news and reality programming. "Pets gone wrong" has been a venerable genre for TV and viral videos, and cable television has no shortage of people engaging with dangerous animals. That means that much of The Elephant in the Living Room isn't shocking in the way that it would have been twenty or more years ago. We've seen this stuff before. Certainly it's nice to put a series of faces to the exotic pet community, but that only highlights the other problem with the film: it's a bit long. All those reality shows have programmed the audience into viewing these kinds of stories in a one-hour time frame, and going to 90 minutes doesn't feel like a great step. Perhaps if some of the more mundane stories of exotic pets were cut the running time would feel a bit better paced.
The DVD, though, makes up for any deficiencies in the film. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is as clear and bright as one could expect from a contemporary documentary. The stereo audio keeps the dialogue balanced with the music and effects track, though it's not going to test anyone sound system. The extras, though, are what sells this set. First up is a nice 48-minute featurette that's basically a Q&A. The director sits down in the woods with Harrison and Russ Clear. They answer questions that came up after people saw the film, which makes this an interesting addendum to the film. Then we get almost twenty minutes of deleted scenes, mainly with the lions. Finally, director Michael Webber sits down co-producer John Adkins. It's a chatty track dominated by Webber, who has lots to say about his film. This is one of those rare films that is made infinitely better by the careful attention paid to it in the extras.
The Elephant in the Living Room is an interesting, though not essential, documentary on the bizarre trade in exotic pets. It has its share of heart-touching moments and even some mayhem, but it's a bit long to have the kind of impact it wants to. However, the film is rescued by its thoughtful extras, making this one easy to recommend for a rental.
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